Are Mixed Martial Arts Ethical for Christians?

As it has done before, the New York Times just covered Mixed Martial Arts.  The article, “The Fight Club Generation,” is well worth reading.

Here’s a snatch:

Evidence that cage fighting has replaced boxing as the combat sport of choice, at least to some men of a certain age, has been quietly mounting for years. The annual pay-per-view audience for Ultimate Fighting Championship matches first surpassed boxing and professional wrestling in 2006, and has continued to rise almost every year since. And among men ages 18 to 34, the sport is fourth in popularity only to baseball, basketball and football, according to research by Scarborough Sports Marketing in New York.

The NYT writer attended the match and came away with this funny impression:

Most audience members attend in support of a specific fighter — a friend, a brother, a trainer, a sensei — so emotions, and testosterone, run high. There is fist pumping, back slapping, shirtless posturing and screams for oddly specific moves (“Get the mount!”). It’s like a boxing match crossbred with WrestleMania, presented in the middle of an Insane Clown Posse concert.

Read the whole thing.

I have spoken out fairly strongly against MMA in the past, and my basic convictions about the sport haven’t changed.  Christians should encourage the development of physical courage and ability in young men, yes.  They should reject pacificism, and they should encourage boys to be adventurous and tough.  But I don’t think that we should tie courage to unnecessary violence.  Courage for a needful aim is good; courage in service to a needless fight is not good, particularly when that fight will cause great damage to the body, much more than is necessary in “manhood training” or whatever you wish to call it.

For that reason, I can’t support MMA, much as readers of this blog know that I advocate a robust brand of full-orbed, Christ-as-warrior manhood.  I do think, though, that the NYT piece is right when it suggests that part of the cultural interest in MMA among men is that there are so few outlets for boys as boys in today’s society.  Many young men don’t grow up hunting, fishing, farming, camping, or even just playing outdoors.  In my sleepy neighborhood in Louisville, there are a number of kids who go outside with the same regularity as their elderly grandparents.  They sit in basement caves, locked in to video games, denizens of the indoors.  A whole world sits outside.  It is not discovered.

So in this light I understand (but still do not endorse) MMA.  It allows men to be men in a physical sense, to get out their aggression and channel it.  Because many boys go to public schools that damp down masculinity and a sense of adventure, they crave outlets of the kind that MMA provides.  I get that.

The challenge before us as Christians is to immerse our boys in the world.  We don’t want them to be jellyfish, to be weak, to be afraid.  We want to develop courage in them, as Harvard philosopher Harvey Mansfield eloquently said in a Hoover Institution essay.  Our boys should be physical, in the world, exploring, questing, playing.  They need above all to learn their manhood in the school of Christ and to understand from the dawn of their youth that God has given them strength so they can serve, not so they can dominate others.

MMA says something true about men, I think.  You can’t watch a performance like Tom Hardy’s in “Warrior” and not be stirred as a man, for example.  But it is a sport that is in need of Christocentric ethics.  Our capacities for energy and force are not given us to damage others, unless their sin places others in harm’s way.  These capacities are given us for enjoyment, for service to our families, churches, and society, and ultimately, for sacrifice of a profoundly Christlike kind.

(Image: Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times)

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